Chinese authorities have warned that organisers of cross-country ultra-marathon events have often put profits ahead of safety, after 21 runners died in extreme weather during a race in the north-west of the country.
A cold snap and storms of hail and rain trapped runners on a mountainside during a high-altitude 100km race at the weekend in the Jingtai Yellow River Stone Park, a tourist destination home to jagged stone features near Baiyin city in Gansu province.
Two of China’s top elite runners were among the dead: Liang Jing, a world-class athlete who held the highest number of International Trail Running Association points; and Huang Guanjun, winner of the marathon at China’s 2019 national Paralympic Games.
The Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, the leading disciplinarians of the Chinese Communist party, said the pursuit of quick profits and weak government oversight had created mounting safety concerns for such events.
“Some races often only chase economic benefits and are unwilling to invest in services and safety,” the committee said on its website.
The strong official response — as well as the outpouring of shock and outrage in China’s running community — has led some experts to expect a regulatory crackdown and possible suspension of some extreme high-altitude races.
“There has been a great demand for events but the supply of people who are competent to run them has not kept up,” one veteran race organiser said. “Everyone wants to do the most extreme race with the most elevation. It’s ridiculous. People don’t have the training for it.”
Of 172 racers, the frontrunners bore the brunt of the extreme weather as they navigated a steep climb about 24km from the start. Participants who dropped out in time to avoid the worst conditions described in blog posts their battles with gale-force winds and a slippery path that made even retreating extremely difficult.
Videos and photos showed runners wearing only shorts and T-shirts or thin waterproofs huddled together and shaking uncontrollably as they waited for rescue teams. Some appeared to have lost consciousness from hypothermia.
“There were serious problems with the organisation,” according to a social media post circulated among trail-running groups. “The checkpoint [on the most difficult section] only had a tent and two people on post. It’s unbelievable.”
Running events hosted in far-flung parts of China have proliferated in recent years, fuelled by an expanding number of adventure-seeking sporty urbanites and elite Chinese runners, many of whom have shot up international rankings.
The sport’s popularity in China has drawn increasing engagement from the world’s leading trail-running organisations. UTMB Group, which runs one of the world’s top trail-running events at Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, and triathlon competition Ironman Group this month announced a new World Series of official events. The competition will include two races in China.
Catherine Poletti, UTMB Group chair, called the tragic incident a “brutal shock” that was likely to accelerate professionalisation and robust safety guidelines for events in the country.
Many of China’s races are local affairs, run with varying degrees of professionalism. The organisers in Baiyin have been criticised for failing to require participants to carry warmer clothing, and supply checkpoints along the route were said to be understocked.
Local officials promised at a press conference on Sunday to reflect deeply on the incident and to investigate its causes.